Westmont Magazine The Sad Death of Kings
Innovative Production Explores Contemporary Meanings in Shakespeare’s Richard II
An ineffective leader faces betrayal and a loss of support as he wages an unpopular and expensive foreign war. The growing opposition eventually leads to his ouster. This timeless plot actually dates to 1597, when Shakespeare wrote his achingly beautiful history play, “King Richard II.” Theater Professor John Blondell directed a creative and thought-provoking production in November.
Through the story of Richard II, overthrown by his cousin and killed in prison, Shakespeare examined the conflict between the legal and divine right to rule and the effectiveness of the monarch.
“Broadly speaking, this staging is a political tragedy about the death of kings,” Blondell says. “More specifically, it is about the silencing of the body politic, the abuse of power and its aftershocks and the disintegration of the social fabric — all couched in a rhetorical bravura unmatched in the English language. In fact, one might call it a ‘rhetorical tragedy,’ because the art of persuasion is basic to the making of some of the play’s characters and the unmaking of its central one.”
Blondell chose the play for the poetic beauty of its language. But the work is mostly speeches; dramatic action is largely absent. How could the audience appreciate the text without being over-whelmed with words?
To solve this problem, Blondell cut huge sections of the play, reorganized it in four acts and set it at Trinity Episcopal Church in Santa Barbara. The first and third acts took place in the Gothic sanctuary with its stained glass windows. Only Richard spoke in this setting, which emphasized his self-proclaimed divine right to rule. The other actors, clad in masks, performed by mime and movement.
For the second and fourth acts, the audience moved to the church hall to see the back-room politics that led to Richard’s downfall. Blondell silenced the king here to demonstrate his inability to stop the forces moving against him.
The production featured professional actors from Blondell’s Lit Moon Theatre Company as well as fellow faculty member Mitchell Thomas and Westmont students. Thomas played the title role. James Connolly composed original and eclectic music, and New York-based designer Yevgenia Nayberg, a guest artist at Westmont, designed costumes and scenography, as did Lesley Finlayson. Jonathan Hicks did the lighting design.
Richard II kicked off a year of events centering on contemporary, international approaches to Shakespeare’s plays. The series features productions, lectures, film screenings and workshops. It will culminate with an October 2006 Lit Moon World Theatre Festival devoted to international Shakespeare with productions from Russia, Poland and Bulgaria. In addition, Blondell has been invited to present “Richard II” at the prestigious Gdansk Shakespearean Festival in Poland this summer. The cast will perform alongside great European companies.